Super Bowl Quarterbacks

Al Bello

What does a Super Bowl Champion QB look like?

As the Super Bowl creeps closer, I thought I'd take a look at the history of Super Bowl winning quarterbacks and their QB ratings.  What does a champion look like?  What is required to have a reasonable shot at a title?  Here is what I found.

The chart below lists every NFL champion quarterback by year over the last 50 years.  Some introductory explanatory notes are in order.

Tms = The total number of NFL teams in any given year.

NFL AVG Rate = The average QB rating for all NFL quarterbacks in any given year.

20% Level QB Rating QB = The QB rating for the 20th percentile rated QB who started at least 75% of the games in any given year, along with the name of said QB.  The 20th percentile is calculated as the nearest whole number to 20% of the teams in any given year.  So when there are 32 teams, the 20% Level = the 6th ranked QB.  When there are 26 teams, it's the 5th ranked QB, etc.

40% Level QB Rating QB = The QB rating for the 40th percentile rated QB who started at least 75% of the games in any given year, along with the name of said QB.  The 40th percentile is calculated as the nearest whole number to 40% of the teams in any given year.  So when there are 32 teams, the 40% Level = the 13th ranked QB.  When there are 26 teams, it's the 10th ranked QB, etc.

SB Winning QB Rating QB Rank QB = The QB rating of the Super Bowl winning QB, followed by the rank of said QB among all QBs starting at least 75% of the games, followed by the name of said QB.

Some further notes.  The two QBs with an * next to their names did not actually play in the Super Bowl.  Rather, they were the QBs who played the majority of the games for their team that year.  Simms played most of the games in 1990, but Hostetler actually won the Super Bowl.  Likewise, Schroeder started the majority of games in 1987, but Doug Williams actually won the Super Bowl.  I made the choice to go with the guys who brought the teams to the dance rather than the guys who actually won it, mainly due to small sample size for the actual winners in 1987 and 1990.

The winning quarterbacks in 1968 and 1969 did not have applicable NFL ranks, because they were AFL quarterbacks.  Rather than confuse the issue by comparing apples to oranges I chose to omit QB ranks for those two Super Bowl winners.

The two QBs with ** next to their names won the NFL Championship in the years before the Super Bowl existed.

Year

Tms

NFL AVG Rate

20% Level

QB Rating

QB

40% Level

QB Rating

QB

SB Winning

QB Rating  QB Rank

QB

2013

32

84.1

96.7

Romo

87.3

Brady

2012

32

83.8

98.7

Brady

87.4

Dalton

87.7

12th

Flacco

2011

32

82.5

92.9

E. Manning

84.5

Newton

92.9

6th

E. Manning

2010

32

82.2

95.9

Freeman

90.8

Garrard

101.2

3rd

Rodgers

2009

32

81.2

99.9

P. Manning

88.9

Flacco

109.6

1st

Brees

2008

32

81.5

93.8

Rodgers

86.4

McNabb

80.1

21st Roethlisberger

2007

32

80.9

95.7

Favre

86.7

Palmer

73.9

20th

E. Manning

2006

32

78.5

92.0

Rivers

79.9

Kitna

101.0

1st

P. Manning

2005

32

78.2

90.2

Plummer

82.4

McNair

98.6

3rd

Roethlisberger

2004

32

80.9

95.2

Green

83.5

Carr

92.6

8th

Brady

2003

32

76.6

88.8

Brooks

80.1

Garcia

85.9

9th

Brady

2002

32

78.6

87.8

Hasselbeck

85.4

Collins

92.9

3rd

B. Johnson

2001

31

76.6

86.5

Brady

80.3

Fiedler

86.5

6th

Brady

2000

31

76.2

84.0

Brunell

77.8 McNabb

76.6

14th

Dilfer

1999

31

75.1

86.5

Gannon

77.7

Kitna

109.2

1st

Warner

1998

30

76.2

90.2

O' Donnell

81.8

Green

93.0

5th

Elway

1997

30

75.0

87.7

Bledsoe

80.7

Marino

87.5

7th

Elway

1996

30

75.0

87.8

Marino

80.1

Aikman

95.8

2nd

Favre

1995

30

77.5

91.5

Moon

87.0

Everett

93.6

3rd

Aikman

1994

28

76.7

84.9

Aikman

81.6

Humphries

112.8

1st

Young

1993

28

74.7

84.0

Hebert

76.3

George

99.0

2nd

Aikman

1992

28

72.8

83.6

O' Donnell

77.1

Chandler

89.5

2nd

Aikman

1991

28

74.2

84.1

Hostetler

79.3

DeBerg

97.9

1st

Rypien

1990

28

75.0

90.8

Schroeder

81.6

Brister

92.7

4th

Simms*

1989

28

73.3

86.2

Kelly

76.9

Marino

112.4

1st

Montana

1988

28

70.6

82.1

Simms

77.6

Cunningham

87.9

4th

Montana

1987

28

72.6

83.8

Kelly

74.2

Moon

71.0

13th

Schroeder*

1986

28

71.5

85.8

O'Brien

74.6

Simms

74.6

11th

Simms

1985

28

70.7

83.6

Kenney

78.6

Simms

82.6

7th

McMahon

1984

28

73.2

85.6

Dickey

78.7

Kemp

102.9

2nd

Montana

1983

28

73.1

85.6

White

79.1

Sipe

82.7

8th

Plunkett

1982

28

70.6

87.3

Todd

77.5

Jaworski

91.3

3rd

Theisman

1981

28

70.5

83.9

Bradshaw

77.3

Theismann

88.4

4th

Montana

1980

28

71.3

82.4

Danielson

75.2

Theismann

72.9

15th

Plunkett

1979

28

67.8

77.7

Zorn

75.3

Landry

77.0

8th

Bradshaw

1978

28

62.1

77.0

Morton

68.9

Tarkenton

84.7

2nd

Bradshaw

1977

28

57.8

75.2

Stabler

64.3

Hart

87.0

2nd

Staubach

1976

28

63.6

79.9

Staubach

75.4

Fouts

103.4

1st

Stabler

1975

26

62.8

81.3

Ferguson

67.4

Stabler

88.0

4th

Bradshaw

1974

26

61.4

82.1

Tarkenton

69.4

Namath

55.2

18th

Bradshaw

1973

26

61.7

86.0

Gabriel

65.8

Plunkett

84.3

6th

Griese

1972

26

63.5

78.5

Berry

71.8

Landry

91.0

1st

Morrall

1971

26

59.3

75.9

Berry

67.1

Liske

104.8

1st

Staubach

1970

26

62.5

78.1

Berry

71.0

Dawson

65.1

15th

Unitas

1969

16

68.6

85.4

Jurgensen

78.5

Kapp

69.9

N/A

Dawson

1968

16

65.6

86.4

Nelsen

81.7

Jurgensen

72.1

N/A

Namath

1967

16

63.7

85.2

Gabriel

72.7

Ryan

64.4

8th

Starr

1966

15

64.2

87.7

Meredith

73.8

Tarkenton

105.0

1st

Starr

1965

14

70.2

93.7

Bukich

83.8

Tarkenton

89.0

4th

Starr**

1964

14

68.0

91.8

Tarkenton

76.7

Ryan

76.7

6th

Ryan**

What can we glean from this chart?  The first thing that I noticed was just how good the champion QBs have been since basically forever.  We talk about how this has become a passing league and how teams now need a top QB more than ever before, but the numbers really don't bear that out.  The numbers say you have always needed a pretty good QB to win the Super Bowl.  In fact, if anything the most recent years have seen the worst champion QBs.  In only six of the last 40 years has the Super Bowl winning QB fallen below the 40th percentile in rank.  Two of those six QBs have come in the last six years.  Those two QBs, Eli Manning and Ben Roethlisberger, came into the Super Bowl with  two of the three lowest percentile rankings in the last 50 years of champion QBs, both ranking in the bottom 38% of QBs in their respective years.  Only Terry Bradshaw in 1974 was worse.

In 28 of the 50 years the champion QB ranked in the top 20% of quarterbacks.  In 21 of the 50 years the champion QB was ranked 1st, 2nd or 3rd.

The eras can be roughly split as follows.  From 2003 through the present a great QB wasn't really required, at least as far as being great that particular year was concerned (most ended up being great even if they weren't great the year they won it all).  During the most recent decade QBs ranking 8th, 9th, 12th, 20th and 21st won it all.  That's 5 out of 10 years where regular season greatness was not a prerequisite.

The 15 years from 1988 through 2002 were quite different.  During those 15 years only one QB, Trent Dilfer, ranked worse than 7th, and only four QBs ranked worse than 4th.  This was the golden age of needing great QBs to win the big one, a stark contrast to the most recent decade.

The nine years from 1979 through 1987 saw a time when again a great QB was not necessarily required.  Six of the nine champions ranked 7th or worse, and only two of the nine ranked in the top 20%.  This was an era dominated by legendary defenses and smashmouth football from the likes of the Bears, the Giants and the Redskins.  Great QBs were helpful but not required.

Finally we have the 15 years from 1964 through 1978.  These were the years of legendary, Hall of Fame QBs.  Starr, Unitas, Staubach, Namath, Dawson, Griese, Stabler, Bradshaw - nearly every year the champion was a QB who went on to become a legendary figure in NFL annals.  However, not all of them were great in the years they won it.  Three QBs in this era ranked below the 40th percentile, and two more, Namath and Dawson, would have ranked below the 40th percentile if they had put up their numbers in the NFL.

What to make of all this?  Well, to start, it's difficult to argue that current times require a great QB more than ever to win a championship.  In fact, if anything the last 10 years have seen the most underwhelming regular season QB performances by champion QBs  out of any time in the last 50 years.  What might explain this somewhat surprising phenomenon?   The most obvious candidate is simply random statistical noise.   It is entirely possible, maybe even probable, that in fact a great QB is needed even more than ever, but the small sample size of the last 10 years simply had a few outliers skew the results.

There is, however, an intriguing alternate explanation.  What we have seen happen over the last 50 years has been a slow, steady climb in QB rating.  40 to 45 years ago a QB rating in the low to mid 60s made you an average QB.  Today that same QB rating makes you the worst starting QB in football.  The improvements have not, however, been achieved equally across the board.  What we have actually seen is a major compression in the rankings.  That is, the highest rated QBs have barely budged in their QB ratings, while the lowest rated QBs have improved dramatically.  So we have top rated QBs in the 60s and 70s clocking in with QB ratings in the triple digits, numbers that would put them at the top of the class even today.  But we also have the lower rated QBs coming in with ratings in the low 60s, 50s, even 40s, numbers that today would quickly land a QB a permanent seat on the bench, if not completely out of the league.  Bradshaw won a Super Bowl with a QB rating for the year of 55.  Starr did it with a 64, Unitas with a 65.  Those were not good numbers those years, but neither were they anywhere close to league low.  So what we see is a steady, relentless lifting of the bottom of the rankings, with relatively little  movement at the top.  The result is a situation where even below average QBs are within 15 points of Pro Bowl QBs, something that used to have a 25 or 30 point separation.  In short, there is much less difference between the great QBs  and the good QBs, and there is much less separation between the good QBs and the merely average QBs.  As a result, it is much easier for a merely adequate QB to get hot for a 3 or 4 week playoff run and perform at a level approaching the greats for a short time than it used to be.  And maybe, just maybe that situation has made it much more likely that a sub par regular season QB like Eli Manning in 2007 or Ben Roethlisberger in 2008 can rally just long enough to win it all.  If so, maybe everybody is taking a slightly skewed look at the QB position.  Maybe we have reached an era where there is so little difference among the top half or so of QBs that having a so called elite QB, while clearly still of great importance, is in fact a bit LESS important than it's ever been.  Maybe, just maybe, we are already at the point where there are so many good enough QBs that in fact all you need is somebody better than average who gets hot at the right time.  If so, then the current narrative that it's never been more important to have an elite QB is simply wrong.  In fact, while having an elite QB is still extremely important, perhaps it has never been less important in terms of your chances of winning a Super Bowl.  Food for thought for a Jets team constantly starved for elite QB play.

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